Needing just 10 points to pass Shaquille O’Neal on the all-time NBA scoring list, Dirk Nowitzki got it out of the way early. Shortly into the second quarter against the Brooklyn Nets, Dirk splashed home a well-defended jumper, nudging The Big Aristotle down to seventh.
Later, Dirk would also hit the game-winning shot, but naturally the talk post-game centered around this tremendous accomplishment. For Dirk, it was a moment he’d "never forget for the rest of (his) life" and it was "surreal, passing Shaq, an all-time great, legend." Indeed, it’s a pretty astonishing feat for anyone that remembers just how dominant and larger than life -- almost literally! -- Shaq was.
But did you know Shaq and Dirk almost swapped jerseys?
Yes, back in 2004, no less, when O’Neal was still close to the height of his powers and Dirk was a younger, less playoff-proven 26-year old.
It was no secret that O’Neal’s time in Los Angeles was wrapping up. A long feud with Kobe Bryant had reached its apex, and following the Lakers’ dismantling at the hands of the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 Finals, Shaq had requested a trade and GM Mitch Kupchak was searching far and wide for a taker.
Shaq’s interior presence would have completely changed the profile of the team, who under Don Nelson played a finesse, smallball game and were beaten up by bigger teams in the paint, but Dallas had just lost in the first round. Cuban and O’Neal were very friendly off the court and Shaq had ties to the area. Even Shaq’s wife was publicly lobbying for the move, saying "Right now, I'd love to go to Dallas" on national television.
It was perfect.
Except the Lakers wanted Dirk Nowitzki, the exciting scorer who was undoubtedly an All-Star but had his share of detractors. In the era before the 3-point revolution where floor-spacing wasn’t as coveted and an old-school mentality still permeated the league, plenty of fans and even executives thought that Dirk’s game was too soft to bring home a trophy.
Perhaps the NBA’s loudest "fan" -- ESPN Page 2 columnist Bill Simmons -- opined that a lineup with Nash, Finley, Josh Howard, Antawn Jamison and Shaq would win the title, hands down, in this exclamation point-laden spiel:
I mean, isn't the point of having an NBA team to win the title? Why lock into winning 55 games a year and losing every May? Why even have a team then? If I were a Dallas fan right now, and the Mavs allowed Nash to leave after Cuban overpaid everyone else on the roster by 50 percent, then they refused to trade Nowitzki and Walker for Angry Shaq, I'm not sure what I would do. Angry Shaq, Jamison, Nash, Finley, Daniels, Howard and Najera... that team wins the title! It wins the freaking title! There's no question about it! Isn't that the whole point of having a team?!?!?!
So how close was this was trade really to going down?
Well, like I said, the Lakers wanted Dirk Nowitzki. Cuban stood by Dirk, saying that he was "as close to untouchable as we’d get." In the end, a deal didn’t materialize, though Dallas did shake things up considerably by trading Jamison and Antoine Walker for Jason Terry and the draft pick that would become Devin Harris, who replaced the departed Steve Nash. Shaq went to Miami, and the decision by Cuban obviously became a topic of discussion again when Shaq and the Heat met the Mavs in the Finals less than two years later.
It would have been weird to imagine Shaq in a Mavericks uniform, but I don’t think I can put my finger on the right word to describe the feeling of seeing Dirk in Lakers' purple and gold. Nauseating, probably. Looking back on it now, I have two thoughts:
1. Thank God they didn’t do it.
2. Simmons, and many others who shared his viewpoint, were wrong. As great as Shaq was, he wasn’t healthy enough to be the best player on a title team anymore (and this was something I suspected while he was still a Laker). While there's no need to dwell on the 2006 Finals once again, the Heat won first, second and thirdly on back of Dwyane Wade, a superstar-in-the-making whose arrival was even more fortuitous than O’Neal’s.
Hard decisions can seem much less so with the benefit of hindsight, but I suspect choosing Dirk over Shaq was not that easy for Mark Cuban. A risk-taker who adores the spotlight shining on his team and his product, the fanfare that would have followed Shaq must have been tempting. In the end, his loyalty to Dirk won the day, and that’s something that has become a defining story for both men, as Nowitzki finishes out his career with the same team, turning down millions in the process.
And 20,000-plus points and a (slightly belated) championship later, Dirk is still here. Merry Christmas, indeed.